Assuming you’ve thought long and hard about why you want and advanced degree in ecology and what specific sub-discipline you’ve decided to pursue, below I provide some advice on how best to approach the grad school application process.
Do not just apply to a program without first contacting potential advisors. Every year I get 1-3 students that do this and list me as their potential advisor. If I’m taking students that year, I’ve already encouraged 2-3 students to apply and will not look at your application. You may think that is harsh, but here is why I do what I do: I don’t want students to spend the time and money required to apply to our program unless I think they will be a good fit in my lab and that I think I will be a good advisor for them.
Here is what you should do. Reach out to people whose work interests you 2-4 months before the application deadline. Hopefully you’ve identified these people based on their publications. Make sure that you check their website for materials that they request of potential applicants and provide them with your initial email. I ask for a CV, a one-page description of research interests, and unofficial transcripts. I’m not looking for a ground-breaking question that you want to pursue. I’m trying to evaluate if you’ve thought through what you want to research and if you can present it in a coherent manner.
Assuming you get some interest from the potential advisor, then you need to plan for your first interaction with them beyond email. I schedule a video call with potential students so that we can each learn more about how the other operates. You need to be prepared for questions relevant to the work we do in my lab. I often ask potential students which of my papers they found most interesting and why? Your answer will help me understand why you’re interested in the work we do and what specifically about forest ecology gets you excited.
After having interviewed several students, I’ll recommend that 2-3 formally apply to our program. Sometime following your application, it is important to schedule a visit. Many programs/advisors will support your travel to visit, but even if they don’t, this is a worthy investment. This is your opportunity to get a sense of the department and the program. Most importantly, this is your opportunity to meet with your potential advisor and lab. I schedule time for potential students to meet with my current lab without me present. You need to ask current students how your potential advisor operates, what kind of support they provide, and what their expectations are. This is your opportunity to gather data about how well you think the potential advisor’s approach will work for you. You should also feel free to contact students who have graduated from the lab. They have a complete picture of the process. To make this process effective, you need the self-awareness to know what you require to be successful. Make sure you give this some thought well in advance of this process.
Remember, this process is a two-way street. The potential advisor is interviewing you, but you also need to be interviewing them.
The area burned by wildfire in the Sierra Nevada has increased by 274% over the last 40 years and the area impacted by stand-replacing fire has also increased. The forests in the Sierra Nevada are important for provision of clean water and are also part of the state’s climate action plan. As a result, figuring out how to reduce the chances of large, hot fires presents a large challenge.
We know that the current pace and scale of forest treatments to reduce the risk of large, hot fires is inadequate given the scale of the problem and the area burned by wildfire is projected to increase with on-going climate change. In a recent study led by Shuang Liang, we set out to determine how the pace of large-scale treatment implementation would alter carbon storage across the Sierra Nevada. We ran simulations under projected climate and wildfire and two management scenarios. Both management scenarios included applying thinning and prescribed burning treatments to low and mid-elevation forests. These are forests that have been most impacted by fire suppression. In the distributed scenario, we simulated an equal portion of the area treated at each time-step and with full treatment implementation by the end of this century. In the accelerated scenario, we simulated the same treatments over the same area, but schedule the treatments so they were complete by 2050. We included a control scenario that assumed no active management for comparison.
The area burned between all three scenarios was fairly consistent because we used the same fire size distributions in our simulations (black line in Figure 1). However, the proportion of burned area that was burned by stand-replacing fire (severity 4 and 5) decreased substantially. The faster pace of treatment under the accelerated scenario increased the proportion of area burned by surface fire (severity 1 and 2) and decreased the area burned by stand-replacing fire at a much faster rate than the distributed scenario.
Both the accelerated and distributed treatments ended up storing more carbon than the control by 2100 (Shown by the difference in Figure 2).
However, what was most striking was how these treatments influence the carbon balance of Sierra Nevada forests as a percentage of California’s 2020 emissions limit from the Governor’s Climate Action Plan. Initially, total carbon losses are higher in the treatment scenarios, with the accelerated treatment having the largest loss (Figure 3). However by 2030, carbon loss is similar amongst all three scenarios and by 2050 the accelerated scenario has lower emissions than the wildfire emissions under the control.
As we demonstrated in a previous study, changing climate and the increase in area burned has the potential to increase wildfire emissions by 19-101% by later this century. The results from this study demonstrate that restoring surface fires to the low and mid-elevation forests in the Sierra Nevada can reduce the magnitude of future emissions and maintain a larger amount of carbon stored in these forests.
Imagine a career where a high success rate means you fail more than 50% of the time and you can never prove you are correct. That is being a scientist.
I live in a world where the majority of my friends are also scientists and I often forget that most people have relatively limited formal exposure to science. Sure, you take biology and chemistry in high school and if you’re not a science major in college, you take a few science classes. What gets lost in this level of education is how messy the scientific process is and how often you fail to accomplish your objective. What also gets lost is how the excitement of unexpected results is really what drives most of us. We teach science as a linear process in introductory science classes – researcher develops hypothesis, designs experiment to test hypothesis, experiment supports hypothesis, new knowledge acquired and added to text book. But, that isn’t how it really works.
A more accurate representation of this bland description is that – researcher develops hypothesis, designs experiment to test hypothesis, experiment fails for any number of reasons, researcher develops new experiment to test hypothesis, experiment inconclusive, new knowledge acquired, researcher reevaluates hypothesis and starts over. Of course, that doesn’t do the process justice. In my experience as a forest ecologist it usually goes something like this:
If you’re not a scientist (which I hope) and reading this (the whole reason I write this blog), you’re probably thinking – This poor science geek can only make friends with other scientists. and It must be pretty demoralizing to fail most of the time. I certainly can’t speak for everyone in science, but I’m pretty obsessive when it comes to thinking about forests and most of my friends are pretty obsessive about thinking about their study systems too. It’s not a curse; nature is a fascinatingly complex puzzle. I absolutely love forests and I strive to do meaningful work that helps us understand and better manage our forests. As for the failure part, sure sometimes it’s disheartening. But the unexpected is what motivates me. When I get unexpected results and it challenges me to think about the forest in a new way, that is what wakes me up in the middle of the night. That is what allows me to let the grant proposal and paper rejections roll off my back. When I teach introductory ecology, I try and communicate to students that this process is not linear like their textbook would have them believe. The information that makes it into a book has lots of failure and reevaluation behind it. The individuals that discovered those things in their textbook were driven by curiosity and the desire to more completely understand whatever system they were working in. While this career certainly doesn’t appeal to most, I just hope that people who aren’t scientists can appreciate the process the way I appreciate the process an artist or business person or engineer goes through.